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5 Proven Ways to Make Your Good Online Course Great

laptop on desk with "online course" on screen

Recent research uncovered just a handful of distinct elements that set great online teaching apart from the merely good. The findings came out of interviews with eight faculty members who have won awards for their online teaching from three professional associations: the Online Learning Consortium, the Association for Educational Communications & Technology and the United States Distance Learning Association.

According to the research, undertaken by Swapna Kumar and Albert Ritzhaupt at the University of Florida and Florence Martin and Kiran Budhrani at the University of North Carolina Charlotte, award winners emphasize five musts for their online courses:

  1. Choose course materials that are authentic and relevant to students' interests and professional goals. That includes bringing in problems that are real-world and timely, giving students opportunities to apply new knowledge in experiential learning and letting them learn how to become "problem solvers."
  2. Use multimedia and not just text. Faculty cited the use of YouTube videos and songs, podcasts, recorded interviews with experts, news articles and snippets of broadcasts to provide "real-world content" in a variety of media. One participant cited the use of VoiceThread to enable students "to hear me and see me."
  3. Have students create digital content alone and in teams. In some cases, students could choose the technologies for creating their digital content; in others, it was prescribed. But across the board, the importance of this approach was to give students a way "to relate the course content to their own lives and contexts, and to demonstrate their learning." That included creation of digital stories, presentations delivered as podcasts, interviews with experts, working with peers in real-time sessions, using Twitter to discuss topics and participating in online debates.
  4. Ask students to reflect on their learning. While straightforward assessments — quizzes, discussion forums, student-created materials — were a part of every course, so was reflection, about what students learned and what they thought about their own and their peers' performance. The goal: to help them "understand their educational journey [and] understand 'their own value of learning and how far that they have come.'" This aspect of the online instruction also helped the instructors identify gaps in knowledge, the report noted.
  5. Explain the purpose of the various modules and content to the students, as well as why particular technology is being used for the various activities. As one instructor observed, "The students need to understand what it is that they are reaching for and how we are going to get through."

All of the instructors also put data to use in their online work as part of figuring out how to improve their courses. That data came from student polling and surveys, the outcomes and analytics generated by the various programs used and the peer reviews and external reviews (including data coming from the institutional office of research).

The award winners also helped to explain what sets "expert instructors" apart from novices teaching online. Experts come to know what works only over time and "based on experimentation, experience, understanding how online teaching differs from face-to-face teaching and their analysis of student learning." Experts tend to "possess a wide range of strategies and are willing to learn." Novices, on the other hand, "are focused on getting their courses into the [learning management system] and are overwhelmed by the time taken by an online course."

The full report is openly available on the Online Learning Journal, published by the Online Learning Consortium.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.

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